Gregory Crewdson was born in 1962 in Brooklyn, NY. He is a graduate of SUNY Purchase and the Yale School of Art, where he is now Director of Graduate Studies in Photography.
Crewdson’s career has spanned three decades. His work has been exhibited widely in the United States and Europe and is included in many public collections, including The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Brooklyn Museum, The Los Angeles County Museum and The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
It was during a full day of researching Gregory Crewdson that the reason his pictures are so powerful became clear to me. I'd read a dozen interviews, watched a full-length documentary of the man, I'd listened to him talk about his work, his life, his process, and eventually, in between the answers he gave, I saw it.
His photographs are akin to one of those giant particle colliders, smashing together, with a master's finesse, themes and emotional concepts that run in direct opposition to each other. But it's the finesse more than the collision that is the secret to his success, the symphony conductor's control he attempts with each image that resonates so deeply with his audience.
When his studio sent word he'd agreed to an interview, I was momentarily concerned: what do you ask an artist who's been interviewed dozen of times, who has been at the height of his field for over two decades?
But as I looked deeper, what happened is what always happened. Every answer I read led me to an unasked question, the more I learned, the more focused my curiosity became. And so, by the time I rang up one of the best photographers in the world, it became not a matter of what to ask, but could I fit it all in.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
I think I’m always in an artistic crisis.
But I think there’s certain times in your work in life, where there are just periods of…transition, I would call them. And those transitions are usually brought about through dramatic change. And there’s always, I think – even if you’re not conscious of it, a relationship between life and art.
So I’m not sure if…aesthetic crisis, is exactly right for Cathedral of the Pines. It was more a personal crisis, really. The entire body of work came out of the end of my marriage.
About five or six years ago, I was involved in a very difficult divorce. I have two children and live in New York, so it was definitely a moment of…period of dislocation and great difficulty. And through that, I wound up leaving New York, and moving my permanent residence to Massachusetts, where I’m speaking to you now, and I lived in a church here. I think that was the jumping off point to this body of pictures. As it turns out, I didn’t make a single picture for about two years. So there was a long period of non-productivity, and partially that had to do with just trying to stabilize my life.
But what I began doing, religiously, I began taking walks up on the Appalachian trail, and doing long swims in a lake called Upper Goose Pond. Then through this process, I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, this was like a healing process. And then in the winters, Juliane and I just went to do long cross-country skis.
In Becket, all of this was in Becket. One of those winter days, we were in the middle, far far away from civilization, and deep in a pine forest. There was a trail, there was a sign for a trail that said, “Cathedral of the Pines”, and that was the revelation. I saw the entire body of work in that moment.
Well, I would say that in some ways it’s a return to certain aspects of Beneath the Roses, working in color and lighting, but unlike those pictures, these are much more intimate in scale and in content. I’m working with a small group, all pictures were made in Becket, on location, in interiors and exteriors, and it’s very kind of pared down. So consequently, the pictures feel more personal and, I think, more private. I know that’s vague, but the other hallmark in the pictures is that nature plays in a big way. There’s a relationship between figures and nature in almost every single picture, whether in an interior or exterior.
Oh yes. I mean, that’s part of the hallmark of my pictures, and try as I may, I don’t think you can fully get away from yourself. But I was trying, I was doing my best to make the most optimistic, most beautiful pictures I could. Of course, no matter how I try, there’s a certain sadness that runs through the pictures.
I think it’s my make up as an artist. And that there’s always, in my pictures, what I would call a necessary detachment, and that part of that has to do with…generally, for me, just the act of photography is the act of separation. But I also feel like my pictures are about trying to make a connection, so those two things play in the pictures. There’s always a tension between, in all my pictures, between this certain kind of sadness and beauty.
Yeah, it was very hard for me to be objective about my pictures, or even subjective about them.
Once I make them, they’re sort of done with. But I do think that, as a general statement, I’ll say that when my pictures, when they feel like they’re truly operating on all cylinders, there’s levels of complexion. There’s tensions between various oppositions, whether that’s domestic space and nature, or sadness and beauty, or maybe, most importantly, fiction and reality. Because even in these pictures, which are closest to my heart and are people that I have real connections to, there’s still a kind of blurring effect between the reality of the situation and creating a kind of narrative, or fiction.
Yes, more than ever before.
Correct, and that’s still the case in some of these pictures, but I break that rule. For example, Juliane, we’re working partners, but we’re also “together”, appears in a few of the pictures. My daughter, Lily, appears in a picture. Juliane’s kids appear. There is…that’s the first time that was part of the content of the work.
Definitely a conscious decision. The fact that these pictures were all made in Becket…were, that’s also very personal. My parents had their country house, that’s where I spent all that time. That’s where I made the Fireflies pictures.
And then Juliane’s family, she grew up in Becket. And in fact, we did a whole production in her family’s house. So these pictures are definitely consciously more personal.
Yeah. I mean, as I mentioned up top, it was a direct relationship to being in a moment of personal crisis, and when you go through periods like that, you tend to go back and reconnect with places where you feel you have emotional stability. So, for me, it was a kind of act of going back, but also trying to move forward. So it’s like kind of reconnection and renewal, I would say, for sure.
With every project you come one step closer to that, you know.
Yeah, heh, hopefully. But by definition, it needs to remain a mystery, you know, because if you understood exactly what that story was, there would be no reason to take the pictures.
The act of making pictures is an act of search. It’s a search, it’s an act of self-discovery. I mean, I could say for sure, there’s certain hallmark things in my pictures that I sort of tend towards over and over again. But that doesn’t mean that, in the end, I really have a full grasp on what they mean.
Yes. And it’s more about questions than answers.
I think there’s generally now, sort of overall in photography, or maybe contemporary art more, sort of an insistencey on art being a fully realized package of…where art acts as a social critique, or a political statement where everything is neatly resolved, and either that, or the other side of that…so much of contemporary art right now is about a kind of…using a representation to critique the nature of representation itself.
To kind of explore the very foundation of that, through various kinds of abstractions. I certainly don’t have any argument with any of that, but for me, for my own self, I go to art as a place of trying to find a certain mystery, and a certain kind of beauty that remains necessarily perplexing or open-ended.
Yes, exactly. But also, at the same time, I was conscious of, in these pictures also, that in some ways, they’re very traditional, in a certain sense. They’re very involved in formal issues concerning light and color and atmosphere and an interest in pictorial states. Like these things that nobody else seems to be interested in, in the moment. To me, it’s a reminder of how, I hope, that my pictures are a reminder of how a simple picture could be endearingly beautiful, you know?
Yeah, well for me, the process itself is mysterious. No matter what, particularly in my case, when so many people are involved, and we’re in these big productions, it’s even more necessary to try to capture something that feels elusive. And it’s also more difficult. And in terms of my relationship to photography and teaching, to me, it’s really important to approach my job, my task there, as an artist, and not as an academic.
I mean, I am there solely as an artist. Not to confuse matters, I don’t talk about my own work, I try to understand or critique work in terms of how an artist would, and not as an academic.
Yes. And I don’t really lecture that much, either. I’m not…I actually quite honestly don’t know what I do as a teacher…
…but it’s not professorial. I’m really there to attempt to talk about pictures, which is a privilege, I think, in a certain way.
Yeah, well that’s certainly true. I mean, it’s odd, this whole sort of way I sort of found myself making pictures, and the way I do make pictures, is all happened very organically. And in a certain way, it’s like the way I figure out how to make a picture. But one thing that I was very aware of, after Beneath the Roses, where we were literally closing down full cities…
…you know, and raking snow, a rain machine, truck-loads of lights…I felt like going into this body of work, “okay, well, we proved we know how to do that.” One thing I want to prove, maybe to myself, or viewership, or whatever, is that I can make pictures without any of that stuff. And that’s what we did. We basically, as an act of preservation, maybe, we had a small crew, we worked entirely on location in places where there was no one, you know? And that was part of the intent to pare down the production and isolate it. And we wound up staying at one place, on location, for long periods of time, which was very productive! I was just listening to a podcast with Quentin Tarantino, and I haven’t seen his most recent movie, but he was talking about the fact that eighty percent of his new film is on one location.
And he talked about how he developed a rhythm in being in one place, and I totally understood that. I related to that completely, even though we were working on actual locations, we would spend weeks in one place, photographing in different rooms, different parts of the forest.
Right. And when you’re working on the level of Beneath the Roses, just the company move from one location to another is a major deal.
You have to work with a whole department of location scouts and managers just to park vehicles and that. And that’s something that we didn’t have to worry about in these cases, which was a real pleasure.
Yes, okay. For movies?
No way! Ohmigod, that’s so interesting. Oh wow.
But you know, it is, on that note, for these pictures, we were in very, at times, very difficult locations, because we were out in the woods, it’s the middle of winter, very cold, there were floods. And often, we’d have electricians and cranes, whatever it is: it is so important to have a safe set.
So I completely relate to that. And I do get an enormous amount of anxiety over issues like that. There was one day that we were working, and it was fifteen below zero…
…you feel responsible, in a certain way.
I’m the captain of that ship.
Yes. Particularly in this. I’ve been working with my DP, Rick Sands and cameraman, Daniel Karp, and my line producer, Saskia Rifkin, and Juliane, of course, for many many years now. So we’re like a closeknit family. And then particularly in Cathedral of the Pines, we were all very bonded. There were three productions, and the crew was pretty much the same, throughout. We did grow to be like a family.
On a very fundamental level, when you work with a group over and over again, I’m sure you’re aware, there’s a shorthand that comes from that. Where you don’t have to have long conversations about technique or lighting or that…we could just all sort of work together. And it’s always great when we have common cause. One way in which my pictures are very, unlike films, we’re only in it for the one picture, so we never have to…there’s no coverage, there’s no changing of camera position, and that’s a really hard thing for people who work on my pictures, who come out of the film world, to get used to.
They’re used to a very different kind of schedule…that being said, when it comes down to “money time”, it’s all hands in. Because there’s a very short window where these pictures could be made.
Yeah, well, although, it’s less visible in the pictures, but there’s a very short window. when our lights can work.
There’s definitely a different pallete in these pictures than anything previously, you’ll see. And a lot of it has to do with the relationship between the interiors and the exteriors of it. We lit…we spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to light these things where the central light source primarily comes from the exterior.
That’s taking a cue from historic painting, I was definitely influenced by 19th century painting, where figures are in an interior space with windows.
Um, well, okay. My answer to that is always my deepest connection comes to artists that influenced me. It’s those artists that are sort of your seniors, the generation before you, that you sort of look up to, and as a teacher, I also am always looking towards the next generation of artists coming. I think the hardest thing to really connect to is people your own age. There are artists that you’ll always admire, but you’re always, no matter what, that’s part of the field that you feel that you’re up against, in a way.
Yes, right. And so, and then, as you might guess, the people that I really admire in my generation are filmmakers, because it’s easier!
It’s easier to admire them, but not easier to do.
Yes, I love Mad Men.
I love all the Andersons, all the Todds. Hahahaha.
I feel connected to filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, and Wes Anderson, in that their relationships to their subject matters filtered through other movies. They’re part of that generation of artists whose visions where shaped as much by movies as by real life, and I feel like I am definitely part of that. That way of looking at the world.
Yes. In fact, Wes and I are close friends, and we relate to each other’s interest in framing and, certainly, control issues of use of color and light and props, all that stuff.
Yes! I should see more of it, because it’s one of those that I feel like I’ve never fully seen the whole thing.
Yeah! But I have to say, I think any photographer needs to take responsibility for what’s in their frame. No matter how you make a picture, whether you’re Winogrand on the street, or Nan Goldin photographing in the East Village in the 1980s, or Cindy Sherman; you own what’s in your frame, so you have to take responsibility for it.
I take that to heart, and I may be a little obsessive about it, and I think it’s one of the reasons why I have this desire to…everything in the picture needs to be clearly seen. It all matters, it’s all a way of telling the story.
When you pick your deadline!
Or when you’re passed your deadline, I think, that’s when it’s finished! These pictures, by the way though, I’m fortunate enough that we print everything in studio, so we’re not dealing with labs or anything, but it’s no exaggeration to say that every one of these pictures were printed and reprinted, and printed and reprinted, many times. We rebuilt them, re-composited them…endlessly, and I really doubt, at the end, that any objective person will see the difference between the composites, but at least it gave me something to think about!
In fact, the final images, in the book, which had an earlier deadline than the show, are different, in very minor ways, than the final pictures in the show.
Yeah, oh yeah. Although, once a series is over, it’s done. And I think that, particularly in this digital age, it’s tempting to go back and rework previous bodies of pictures, I think there’s a certain danger to that. Because photography, in the end, is a technical medium and part of the look of the pictures is the time it was made in. And so while you’re at work on a series, all bets are off. But going back and reprinting your archive, I think there’s some issues that come up there.
Oh, yeah, it’s gotta be the process. To me, the most powerful, most beautiful, most meaningful part is being on location where it all comes together. I find the whole post-production part very frustrating, but there is a thrill when you make a final print, and it feels right. Un-lasting, but…
Oh yes. It’s the kind of thing that when it’s all going right, it definitely feels like it couldn’t be better, but when things go bad, it couldn’t be worse.
There’s nothing worse than things going wrong when there’s a whole group sort of waiting on you.
Oh yes, for sure. There is definitely…I’m not particularly religious, but…
Yeah! I live in a church, my body of work is called Cathedral of the Pines, and I speak about it in religious terms. But to me, whether it’s like a sort of a relationship to God, or a relationship to art, it’s all part of the same thing, of trying to find meaning in your life. And for me, personally, when I’m making pictures, there’s a clarity that comes from it that feels spiritual, in a certain way.
Well you understand yourself better, but less at the same time.
Because, earlier we were saying, “why is there the certain sadness in the pictures,” I can’t quite tell you why, but the pictures tap into something that you’re not entirely aware of, so you should surprise yourself, in that way.
The images presented in this interview courtesy of Gagosian New York.
Cathedral of the Pines (2013–14) was made during three productions in and around the rural town of Becket, Massachusetts. In images that recall nineteenth-century American and European paintings, Crewdson photographed figures in the surrounding forests, including the actual trail from which the series takes its title. Interior scenes charged with ambiguous narratives probe tensions between art, life, connection and separation, intimacy and isolation.